President Joe Biden on Friday signed a sweeping executive order that targets big tech mergers but includes a provision favored by most tech giants.
The order instructs the Federal Trade Commission to more closely monitor merger attempts by “dominant internet platforms” and to restrict how tech companies can exploit users’ personal information. But it also recommends that the Federal Communication Commission restore net neutrality rules, which prevent internet providers from making distinctions among users. Tech giants like Facebook and Amazon support net neutrality because it bars internet providers from charging platforms based on their broadband use.
The order signals the Biden administration’s confused approach to big tech regulation. At the signing ceremony, the president called out big tech directly, describing the executive order as an effort to promote “fair competition,” one of the administration’s priorities. But Biden still has not nominated a nominee for assistant attorney general for antitrust, a major enforcement position. Congress is considering considers legislative proposals to regulate the biggest tech companies, but there is little consensus on what approach to take.
Politico reported that the executive order was shaped in part by Tim Wu, a professor now serving in the Biden administration as a special adviser on economic and tech policy. Wu and FTC chairwoman Lina Khan have been some of the administration’s most aggressive voices in calling for increased scrutiny of major tech companies.
Wu is one of the most ardent proponents of net neutrality, a term he coined in 2003. The Trump administration rolled back net neutrality regulations in 2017 in an attempt to increase broadband competition. At the time, Democratic lawmakers and social media giants warned that the change would lead to providers restricting users’ internet access and discriminating against certain content providers. Those concerns proved to be overblown, though Facebook and Twitter have recently come under fire for discriminating against conservative content.
One of the order’s provisions seems aimed at Amazon. It calls for rules barring internet marketplaces from exploiting their power by copying the products of smaller sellers on their platforms. The order will likely increase regulatory scrutiny of Amazon’s planned purchase of MGM Studios.
The order contains a variety of “suggestions” for independent agencies, which prompted accusations from industry groups and think tanks that the administration is pressuring agencies to fall in line. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that takes funding from big tech companies, said, “The White House is attempting to meddle into the work of federal antitrust agencies.”
The order also contains a variety of non-tech related provisions, including a request for the Department of Agriculture to issue additional rules to support small farmers and meatpackers. And it asks the FTC to issue rules banning “unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions,” the practice of requiring employees to obtain a license before entering certain industries.
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